Rooney puts Manchester United in the driving seat
Manchester Utd 1 Fulham 0
Manchester United moved three points clear of Manchester City in the race for the Premier League with a typical piece of unerring finishing by Wayne Rooney, but this game ended controversially.
Fulham were denied a clear penalty when Michael Carrick fouled Danny Murphy in the box, but Michael Oliver waved play on, sending Fulham manager Martin Jol into meltdown.
"I think if he had given the penalty he would have had to send Michael Carrick off," the Dutchman said after the game. "I think everyone in the stadium expected a penalty to be honest. You have to be brave to give a penalty away at Man Utd."
Jol's side had posed a tactical problem that took the champions 42 minutes to solve. Only lapses of concentration by Brede Hangeland and John Arne Riise, surprising given their hitherto substantial contributions to the Fulham resistance movement, gifted United their chance, taken emphatically by Rooney.
Until then United had just run into a wall of white shirts. This was supposedly one of the more straightforward challenges in the title run-in but the visitors refused to roll over. Jol had set his team up to frustrate in numbers and attack on the counter.
Mahamadou Diarra anchored behind a hard-working quartet of the right-sided Damien Duff, Moussa Dembele, Clint Dempsey and Kerim Frei on the left.
Pavel Pogrebnyak looked isolated in the early stages but Fulham were soon supporting him well, particularly Dempsey from his central-midfield station. The American even ventured forward, testing David de Gea with a low shot. Dempsey's next effort brought a spectacular, slightly theatrical save from De Gea.
Until the excellent Rooney broke through, Fulham's defending was both dogged and disciplined. Stephen Kelly threw himself to block a shot by Ashley Young. Hangeland thwarted Rooney, who was attempting to pull the strings behind Danny Welbeck. As the young England striker then threatened, Aaron Hughes raced across to clear.
Still United pressed, often taking flight down the flanks. Still Fulham held out, dealing with the aerial challenge for 42 minutes.
Young swept in a free-kick from the left that Hangeland headed out. Fulham's captain then intercepted a Rafael cross from the right. Diarra nicked the ball off the dawdling Ryan Giggs. Near the half-hour mark, as United attempted to mount a siege, even Pogrebnyak was dropping deep into his own half to help out.
Still the red waves rolled towards Mark Schwarzer's area. Only smart thinking from Riise quelled a surge from Antonio Valencia. Patrice Evra then tried his luck with an overhead kick. Still no joy. United were becoming frustrated, Giggs flying in on Dembele and being booked.
Riise continued to impress defensively, blocking a Valencia effort and then beating the United winger in the air. United's pressure had to tell. Cracks had to appear in Fulham's barricades. United were attacking like a drill-hammer, pounding away.
Evra appealed loudly for a penalty when his driven cross caught Kelly on the arm, but Oliver waved play on, much to Evra's annoyance.
Three minutes from half-time, United had their reward. Following a corner, Evra stroked the ball down the left to Young, who cut inside and did one of those little shuffles, opening a yard of space next to Kelly.
Young curled the ball over, menace glinting under the floodlights, yet still Fulham should have cleared. Hangeland was well-placed to meet the ball but misjudged its flight. The ball continued towards the far post.
Riise could have stopped its journey but hesitated, the ball continuing to Jonny Evans. The centre-back, who has enjoyed his best season at Old Trafford, responded like a seasoned centre-forward with his confident cutback to Rooney, who thumped the ball past Schwarzer.
The lead secured, the thought of improving their goal difference, pulling closer to City, must have passed through United's minds.
Attacking the Stretford End in the second half, United pushed on with even greater pace and purpose. A fine move involving Rooney, Valencia and a magnificent first-time pass from Giggs culminated in Valencia bringing a fine save from Schwarzer. The Australian then threw himself to his left to claw away a shot from Young.
Both managers made changes, first Ferguson withdrawing Welbeck and sending on Javier Hernandez. Then Jol sent on Bryan Ruiz, removing the quiet Frei.
Dempsey pushed left in a 4-2-3-1 system. Murphy, booed for his Liverpool connections, then replaced Diarra.
United had still had the best chances. Dembele blocked a Young shot. Rooney saw a window of opportunity slammed shut by Hughes. Giggs dragged a shot well wide. Then came a remarkable double save by Schwarzer after 72 minutes.
When Valencia lifted over a long ball, Young met it first time with real power. Schwarzer did superbly to repel the first strike and then again to keep out Young's follow-up. As the ball rolled clear, Giggs let fly with a shot that Hangeland managed to keep out.
Ferguson continued to make changes. Ferdinand departed for Chris Smalling and then Rooney went off to a standing ovation as Paul Scholes came on.
For all their possession, United had to beware the sucker-punch. Ruiz swerved in a free-kick from the right, and De Gea appeared through a crowd of players to punch clear.
Criticised earlier in the season for a timidity when the ball arrived from the wide areas, the young Spaniard dealt well with this inquisition, although he appeared to hurt his wrist, spending the remaining eight minutes rubbing it.
Old Trafford began to fret, craving a second goal. Hernandez wriggled through but Hangeland dispossessed him. United were missing the technical qualities and work rate of Rooney.
Giggs appeared to be tiring but then conjured up a marvellous pass to Young, although again Fulham stood firm, this time Kelly clearing. Controversy then ensued, Carrick fouling Murphy in the box. Jol was apoplectic, even stepping on to the pitch to complain. (© Daily Telegraph, London)